Moments after Monday’s match was over, as Harborfields’ Nate Melnyk maneuvered his wheelchair to the sideline, put down his tennis racket and donned a sweatshirt, his father, Mike, said proudly: “Way cool, Nate! Good job! Bagels!”
Melnyk, a junior, and his partner, Bobby Bellino, a freshman, had just won their varsity doubles match, 6-0, 6-0 — bagels, in tennis parlance — serving up a little history along the way.
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According to NYSPHSAA assistant director Todd Nelson, “To my knowledge, this is the first” varsity match in state history involving a wheelchair player competing with and against able-bodied players.
“I’m glad. It was a pretty solid win,” Nate Melnyk, 16, said matter-of-factly.
That’s his style. He loves playing tennis and says it has helped him recover mentally and physically from an auto accident in 2009 that left him a paraplegic, but he is rather blasé about his performance and the historical significance of Monday’s match, which began last Tuesday and was suspended after the first four games because of rain.
“I enjoyed it. It went better than I thought,” Melnyk said of the straight-sets shutout that helped Harborfields defeat host Smithtown East, 5-2. He then laughed and added, “But as a tennis player, there’s always something to improve on.”
It is that determined attitude that has helped Melnyk become a nationally ranked wheelchair player with bigger dreams.
“Nate chose to come up and play varsity. He wanted the competition,” Harborfields coach Bob Davis said. “He keeps improving and improving. Who knows what’s going to happen next year? He might be in the regular lineup all year. He’s not putting any limitations on himself and we’re certainly not limiting him. This feels great. It’s a nice experience for everybody.”
With a reporter, two video graphers and a still photographer chronicling the day’s events, Melnyk and Bellino picked up where they left off last week. Melnyk served well, even getting an ace, and made a number of nice returns. What Melnyk couldn’t get, Bellino did, often ending rallies quickly with forehand winners.
“He’s a lot of fun to play with when it comes to strategy,” Bellino said. “He’s always down to do something fun or interesting. He’ll talk about [opponents’] weaknesses, where to hit the ball and how to approach the next point.”
Melnyk said playing with his friend Bellino added to the enjoyment of Monday’s match. He said he was looking forward to his official first varsity match but tried not to let it consume him.
“I wasn’t really nervous because I know if I get nervous, I just play worse,” Melnyk said. “I wanted to play the best I could, so I just didn’t think about that [history]. I tried to shut it out and just focus on the match.”
Bellino said Melnyk’s focus was sharp. “He played very well. I’d say it’s one of his best days,” Bellino said. “His serve was on point and he also was able to hit some high shots.”
The latter is one of the most difficult tasks facing a wheelchair player. “Nate told me he’s been practicing getting the ball that’s going over his head,” Bellino said. “He said, ‘I’ve got this down now.’ It showed today.”
So did Melnyk’s steadfast and positive approach to tennis. “It’s inspiring,” Bellino said. “He’s always super-enthusiastic. He’s not a downer about what happened. He’s not fazed by what position he’s in on the tennis team [third doubles]. He just looks at it as it’s all for fun and give it your best shot. He always does that.”
Of making a little history, Melnyk said, “It’s nice, but hopefully there are other matches coming up for me.”
The bubbly Bellino called Monday’s event “a cool experience to take part in. I just love tennis, even if I wasn’t making history, but the fact that we did make history and I played with Nate, a nice guy, my friend — it’s awesome. I love it.”
Melnyk’s father, who quietly watches all of his son’s matches, rarely saying a word, showed some understandable enthusiasm when the match was over.
“It feels pretty darn good. I know this is a thrill for him to play a varsity match,” Mike Melnyk said before pointing toward his son. “Look at that smile. That says it all.”